Tuesday, May 25, 2010

to come to please us

Ever since I went on an international student exchange, several months long, years ago, I've had a dilettante's interest in Thailand. I was worried when its fragile, messy, and corrupt politics finally seemed to be bringing the country into civil war, and pleased yesterday when I saw that Apichatpong Weerasethakul had won the Palme d'Or at Cannes for a film set in Isan, the corner of the country where -- other Thais will let you know -- the bumpkins live, scrabbing in their dusty farmland. Trailers for the film show bright green jungle, but the north-east has a reputation for drought. Wondering how to express my pleasure I did as readers far away from Thailand do: I brought out the only book I own by an Isan-Thai author and read it. (Trying, like this, as if with a magical device, to attach myself to the story that is still flying around the world in the shape of these words: Thai Auteur Stuns with Cannes Win.) My book is Prejuab Thirabutana's Little Things, with its modest preface thanking the foreign English teachers from UNESCO who "kept on steadily stirring me up," until the manuscript was finished.

If you readers found it good, give your admiration to all the persons I have mentioned above.

If you found it bad, blame me.

In Weerasethakul's film, Uncle Boonmee wonders if he is being punished for murders he committed decades ago when the Thai government was trying to squash communism. Thirabutana's book alludes to this piece of history briefly when an outsider visits her narrator's isolated Isan village.

He gave us lectures, books, and showed us films against Communists. They said this Communist was dangerous. It would force us to work like buffaloes and destroy our religion, our monks. If that was true then the Communist must not come to us. We did not know what to do without monks. They knew everything; when we had something wrong we could depend on them, such as when we were sick, or someone died, or wanted to build a new house, or when we were distressed, or quarrelled with the others. The Wat was the centre of us all, it was the only place in the village that had the complete set of carpentry tools and plates and dishes. When we wanted to use those things we just went to borrow from the monks. Their lecture was too long and complicated but they gave us free books which pleased us very much and paper was rare in our village so it was useful. But what did a Communist look like anyway? the old people asked.

The question goes unanswered; in the next paragraph the narrator moves on to the subject of politics. Elections are wonderful, she says. It's the only time when politicians bother being nice to you. "The candidates would take turns to come to please us as if we were a long-lost relative, give us things, sometimes even money, show us film, promise to do this and that for us if we elected him." They held an election while I was in Thailand and the winner gave away so much cash that his nickname was Mr ATM. An anti-corruption body caught another politician with a room full of baht arranged in stacks. What was he going to do with it? they asked. Oh, he said. I was going to buy a piece of land. Where is this piece of land? I'm not sure, he replied. In the country.

Wise Kwai's Thai Film Journal has been rounding up the response to Weerasethakul's win: Cannes 2010: Apichatpong and his Uncle Boonmee win the Palme d'Or, and Cannes 2010: Hero's Welcome Promised for Apichatpong. See, also, this long list of Uncle Boonmee links at Mubi.

Cristina Nord interviews him here. Of communism he says:

"Primitive Project" was set in Nabua in Northeast Thailand. It is a village that was occupied by communist insurgents and also by the government. So it was at the centre of a conflict.

... without wanting to be?

Exactly. The people were forced become communists. If they got stopped by the police and asked whether they had seen any communists and they said no, they would be beaten up. And if they said yes, I am a communist, they would be killed immediately. So they had no choice but to go into the jungle and become communists. This started in the '60s and went on until the early '80s. And no one wants to remember it today.

Your new film came out of this. Its protagonist remembers everything.

And for anyone interested in Thai fiction, the translator Marcel Barang has a blog. In the introduction to his Twenty Best Novels of Thailand, he writes:

The novel in Thailand is a recent western import; the first truly Thai novels were written only seventy years ago. The body of available work is relatively small, a few thousand volumes, the bulk of which were scribbled to offer (very) light entertainment and can be dismissed outright. Sorry to say, Thai novels of high literary octane number only in the hundreds.

Little Things is not a novel of high literary octane, but as an English-language fiction about Isan life it performs the most basic and honourable function of a book: it makes things known to those who do not know them.


  1. What's happened in Thailand is tragic...I guess it feels kind of personal to you, when you've lived there?

  2. I lived far away from Bangkok, so the city-fighting doesn't feel so personal -- there's been no time when I've looked at any of the photographs and thought, "I remember that road," or, "Oh no, not the Siam Theatre," (torched by protesters: an old cinema) but I wish there was some magic wand that would heal Thai politics (and everything that feeds into it, the poverty in some places, the neglect, the insistent presence of the military), because it goes from bad to moderately bad to worse to awful and then veers back up again. When I was there, it was understood that all politicians were corrupt. You went into office to make as much money as you could before someone caught you and threw you out, whereupon you were replaced by someone else who went on to do the same thing. Of course people are angry. Anyone would be angry. But there doesn't seem to be a solution.